THERE ARE NOT so many democracies anywhere these days that an entry, or reentry, to the list should go uncheered. That's the reason for a salute to Bolivia, which the other day conducted elections both mercifully unrigged and likely to be honored by the generals who have run the country the last 15 years. The generals' attitude is not to be explained by a dramatic midnight conversion to the virtues of constitutional rule. Rather, they seem eager to spare themselves the burden of putting Bolivians through the international economic wringer, as any new government will surely have to do. But forget about that for now. Bolivia has held free elections. None of the three presidential candidates, all ex-presidents, won the requisite absolute majority, so the newly elected congress will pick a winner soon.

That's where the problem lies. The new president will almost certainly be either Hernan Siles Zuazo or Victor Paz Estenssoro. They were both among the founders of the MNR, the Bolivian party of economic and political modernization that came to power originally in 1952, and if the party had not since split, either one of them would have been in a position to receive a strong popular mandate and to run a strong government. But the party split, and so neither one is in that position. Moreover, because of the military's 15-year hold on politics, a whole generation has come of age unschooled in the habits of compromise and restraint essential for the operation of any democratic system. The economy is weak, unbalanced and debt-ridden, and the international bankers demand austerity measures that will be at best painful and at worst destabilizing.

Bolivia's own leadership is its first line of defense. The prime requirement is cooperation between the two MNR factions. Yet others have a role, particularly the international financial community. The United States, which has been urging the return of democracy to Bolivia, can hardly relax now. One helpful thing the administration could do would be to reconsider its plans for releasing tin from the American stockpile. Such sales lower the price of a commodity that provides the bulk of Bolivia's foreign exchange. Democracy in Bolivia deserves a break.